Thursday, July 30, 2009

Screech owls

[The title link is to TOS]

Our eastern Screech owl is a little thing that inhabits my back yard. I hadn't heard him nearly enough this summer to even feel comfortable that they'd stayed around. Until, the other night. With all the rain maybe they've taken to cover but that night was not exactly dry, either. Between the noise of the rain, the periodic train whistles, cars, and helicopters and everything that kind of go over my place, I finally heard a call again. It's not that I live in a noisy part of town. My neighborhood is quit calm and quiet late in the evenings and by mid-morning you could hear a pin drop. It can get eerily quiet.

The screech owl does not screech. Folklore has it the name comes from it's imitating a woman's scream. I always thought they sounded more like a horse whinny or a loon with a cold. The other half of the call is a (very) quiet warble. Apparently, he doesn't have to yell out his location or his intentions. She can hear perfectly him well, thank you very much. Maybe she isn't interested.

But, still, this seems late in the summer either to hear screech or not. We've had a cool July (and wet, too) which may have had some effect. August has started off more like August ought to be--hotter. My failing memory makes me want to think screech owls have not been calling rather than my old ears being inadequate to hearing. It would be easy to miss the low notes because of ambient noise in a given neighborhood. And, too, a person has to be sensitive to the call otherwise it just mixes in with thebackground.

The bird club members have been noting the same problem. We now are posting the occasional callings whereas I suspect years before we didn't hardly bother with an every evening occurance. That's how strange it can get.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

West (by God) Virginia

Just back from a lovely long weekend in West Virginia. I like traveling in eastern West Virginia more than western. Obviously, the difference is in coal mining versus logging. You can't get too excited about cutting forests but for the most part the large tracts are interspersed with lots of farms and small towns so any current cutting is "over yonder." You sort of look away at the ruination by coal mining. But I guess that gives the place it's texture, too. I like to think we appreciate a place that isn't "perfect" because we see, we know, we understand, what's beyond the facade.

If all you wanted was the hillbilly or "tartanized" look go to Dollywood.

West Virginia takes great pains in attracting tourists. They do have lots of great scenery and you do have to get off the interstate and into the back country. They have skiing, camping, old railroads, small towns, and good roads. We visited the Cass Scenic Railroad which is just lovely. Be prepared that you are way back in the woods, so to speak.

Because I live in upper east Tennessee, the countryside in West Virginia looks pretty much the same to me. Plants and animals are sometimes different because of the latitude but you'd know where you are and what you see for the most part.

The intinerary was sort of: Johnson City to Beckley to Lewisberg in about three hours. Lewisberg is a great old town. Then to Cass and the ride the rails. The Green Bank Observatory. Elkins (as in Davis & Elkins). The New River Gorge and back to Beckley. To the John Henry Statue in Talcott. The other end of the gorge. Back home. Don't underestimate the John Henry Memorial. It isn't much, just a statue, but the drive is really pretty and is tucked away in the most out-of-the-way part of the state. You all get great views of upriver New River Gorge from a couple of places, both worth checking out.

My kind of place.

Birds? Saw what I thought to be a blue-winged warbler but I couldn't be sure. Mostly, Pocahontas County, West Virginia, was just like Washington County, Tennessee.

This picture is from a short hike at Caneen Valley State Park above Cass. I couldn't begin to describe how pretty it all is. By the way, it's pronounced "kah-neen" instead of "cane'in".

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Carver's Gap and the Gray's Lily on June 28 on the Roan

I have hiked Carver's Gap northbound and southbound for a few
miles many times. It is always delightful. There are plenty
of people and plenty of plants. The weather is different,
and beautiful.

Many years ago Brian Cross, Rick Knight, Beth Hogan, and
I made an early morning run up to Carver's Gap. We got there
probably between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. The gap was socked in.
Visibility zero. Ceiling zero. In those days the northbound
trail went straight up from the gap to Round Bald, the first
of the bald, treeless tops. The trail then continued pretty much
straight up and down the balds for about two miles before
breaking off to the left staying on the ridge line.

So we charged up the hill still enveloped in the fog. I couldn’t tell you how far we hiked or if we just lucky on the first bald but pretty soon we broke out of the cloud in to clear sky and bright sun. Below us was the tops of the clouds and poking through them some of the surrounding
peaks. Islands in the sky. It happened only once and even then as the day warmed the effect went away rather quickly.

Other times I have hiked this part of the trail along with most of the rest of the population of the east. I one time counted 70 people along the trail with me. Today was about the same. There were groups of people. Not ones and twos but sevens and tens. Like every hiking club, plant club, ecology class decided today was the day to hike this short stretch of the trail.

This year I encountered Mike Poe and Jerry Greer photographing a chestnut-sided warbler at the gap. Mike Poe is no slouch photographer, either, I just can't find his website.

My personal goal had been to photograph the Gray’s Lily. This two-blossom beauty comes out after mid-summer but disappears mid-August. They’re hard to find. You won’t find them in clumps or spread out across the trailside. One here. Three there. None for a long stretch. Then one. Then two. There have been summers where I missed them all.

This day might have been rained out. We’ve been having a spate of hot and muggy days and rainy afternoons so I figured this for a wet trip. As usual, things were different at Carver's Gap than here in Johnson City. It was blowing like a banshee with clouds racing across the balds,
followed by gaps of bright sun. I marched northbound knowing about how far I wanted to go. The new trail is an easy climb through the trees up to Round Bald. This is so much easier than the old route. And it saves the knees on the way down.

Periodically, the property gets visited by goats and sheep to help fight back the wild thicket. The balds are rare in their openness and treeless view of the landscape. I can also remember Beth Hogan and I hiked with one of the local clubs from Carver’s Gap to Grassy Ridge in an evening and hiked back under a full moon. Because the balds are relatively bare and the night was clear, you could see the trail in a moonscape glow. It was quite a treat. But you can’t do this on the southbound side because you’re back in the forest.

This year they’ve fenced in goats on Jane Bald to help eat up the shrubbery. Where the trail nears the fence right after the top of Jane Bald is where I found the Gray’s Lily.

I hope goats don’t like flowers.

Saw-whet Owl Prowl

There were eleven of us, tromping once again into the wilds of the Cherokee National Forest near Unicoi, Tenn, on the Unaka Mountain Auto Loop. We were ultimately looking for saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) a very small (7 inches), rare, owl of the east. Saw-whets inhabit the older forests and, for such a small bird, command individually lots of territory. Most of us will probably never see a saw-whet or hear one. Besides “rare” you just have to be in the right spot and the right time, at night, up in the mountains. Many casual listeners would probably confuse with the Common screech owl (Otus asio) of which I have had many every year (but not yet in 2009!) in my back yard trees in Johnson City.

We were up at about 4,500 feet in mostly conifer forest. It was overcast with occasional lightning and misting rain. We called up one Saw-whet who answered one time. And that was it.

So goes birding.

We have five owls in the eastern mountain region. The saw-whet, however, is basically a northern owl that has survived along the Appalachian mountain tops. The boreal zone “up there” has offered us “down here” a lot of opportunities to see a varied animal and plant life not available to many folks in the east.

The Screech owl (7-9 inches) has a whinny, like a horse singing soprano, sometimes followed by a tenor warble. Maybe a loon with a cold? At my house I get more warble and less whinny. Once you hear the Saw-whet call, you will forever know the difference. The Saw-whet seems more like a metallic “reep” and “rove” compared sometimes to the boing sound you get when you bind your wood saw by pushing it too deep into the cut. Personally, I don’t equate the sounds my saw makes with what I’ve heard from the Saw-whet owl.

I was camping one time on the AT about 2 or 3 miles north of Carver’s Gap in the Highland Shelter. By myself. Nice, quiet fall evening. Nothing disturbing the air and I could hear this “reep” sound from a long ways off. I knew what it was and it was my only saw-whet owl. I tried valiantly to stay awake for an answering call. But, no, I dozed off at my post! I couldn’t tell you how many years have passed since that night.

Our other owls are the Eastern great horned, the Barred, and the Barn. These three are all different enough to avoid confusion.

We also heard (at least that is what I’m told): Acadian flycatcher, Swaison’s warbler, Veery, Black-throated blue warbler, Black-throated green warbler, Canada warbler, Blackburnian, and Junco. (I can’t tell one warbler call from another.)

We were above Red Fork Falls where the road soon switches over from blacktop to good gravel. There a several great photographic websites to either look at the countryside or find some images from Red Fork area and Beauty Spot.

For a map reference start with: